Chilling effect

I got a notification from Twitter recently that my account is now enjoying the first of its teenage years, which is probably the longest I’ve ever spent saying stuff in public in a single place. It’s given me pause to think about what I use Twitter for and how I interact with it, and the state of the wider Internet and social networks in general. Given everything that’s happened in the world in the last half a decade or so, and how things seem to be going in general and especially online, I struggle to see a positive future.

The core problem is that almost all of the popular social networks make it very difficult to carefully curate who can see, interact with and share what you say, and whether it’s kept forever. Twitter makes your account visible by default to anyone with the URL even if they don’t have an account themselves, and there’s no way to limit tweet visibility to particular groups. You do have some control over who can reply to what you have to say, but there’s no control that I’m aware of to limit retweeting or quote tweets.

That makes it trivial for anyone with internet access to show up and make your day worse, and there’s precious little you can do about that. The light applications of those possibilities are minor at one end of the spectrum — maybe someone shows up in your mentions with a poorly-placed, “well, actually…”, say, that’s easy to ignore — but at the other end, if one of the Internet’s horrible mobs shows up then, if you work somewhere that doesn’t know how to handle that kind of thing happening to their employees, you could lose your ability to pay rent and eat.

Then there’s the fact that almost everything added to the public Internet these days is logged and searchable forever, or can trivially be. That means you’re never truly in control over how the world sees you in the future. I lived a good chunk of my childhood before the Internet ever took off in any meaningful way, which means I got to grow up in a healthy way without my almost immeasurable mistakes being part of some searchable public record.

I was, like most kids, incredibly horrible at times. I learned how to be a good human being by sometimes being a bad one first. I said things that if you could find them now would probably get me fired. But I was able to grow up as a result of those interactions with others. By talking to people and learning and growing as a person, I formed my senses of right and wrong, and good and bad. I learned empathy, patience, kindness, compassion, and what it means to trust. I figured that out by being, sometimes in large part, unfeeling, impatient, horrible, uncaring and untrustworthy.

I can’t fathom for one second what it’d be like if you could search the digital version of that, where some of my growing up played out in AOL and IRC chat rooms in the nineties and early noughts. Of course you can find spaces on the ’net that are private to let you do that today, but they’re harder to find than ever and the popular places for discourse actively discourage it.

It makes me wonder whether connecting the planet in that kind of way was a good idea, and a net win for the societies that have embraced the Internet as part of everyday life. That’s not everywhere on Earth, granted, but generally speaking it definitely is. I used to believe in it, but today I think it was a dreadful idea to make it easy for several billion people to take a trivial look at what you say every day.

The net result, at least for me, is a chilling effect on my online speech. I’ve stopped tweeting for the most part unless it’s truly benign. I’ve stopped posting in the public online forums I used to frequent, and especially in the more free-form communities that exist now that I’m a part of, many on Discord, I interact less and less. Why? I don’t know who everyone is, or what their agenda is, and the risk that something I say gets taken out of context is paralysing.

Even in the most private community I have with a small handful of friends, many of whom I’ve known for over 20 years, I have to watch what I say because it feels almost inevitable that one day the services we use will be breached and logs will be exposed. Maybe that’s my own fault for having a job where a large part of it is inventing a future that’s not public yet, working on a very large public company’s future products. I could get a job where talking about it openly is completely risk-free and maybe even encouraged. It’s my choice not to have that.

Still, it’d be nice to talk about some of the less sensitive aspects of that with my friends. I live alone, and so it’s nice to be able to talk about what I do with someone, even in the abstract. Sadly even that abstract can be misused and misconstrued. Therefore the modern Internet’s properties and how the populations atop it move and act make that incredibly difficult, and the cognitive overhead of having to think about every keypress and every submitted line of text means I almost overwhelmingly don’t bother unless it’s some frivolous detail.

I’m in my 40s now, but I’m still growing up. I still say the occasional hurtful or misguided thing. Sometimes I don’t understand someone or something and have to come back later, having had time to think and learn, and apologise. Hopefully when I die people will say I was a pretty good person, but I wasn’t at times in the past, and I still have a lot to learn to be a better one in the future. I feel terrified about any of that happening online.

I’ve written about writing about difficult things before. The kind of stuff that takes real courage to get down on paper and be open about. The kind of stuff where it’s important and even completely necessary to write it down, to help others and help myself. In particular, I strongly believe that we’ll only be better humans if we’re open with each other about our struggles with mental health. However the version of me that wrote that with hope in 2014 can’t imagine writing the same thing in 2021. I feel so incredibly naive, in hindsight, that the Internet would be a welcoming place for vulnerability and honesty and growth, all while making mistakes and saying the wrong thing or having different views.

There’s a limit to what you can say in public of course; not all speech is free or protected. But the spectrum of what it feels safe to say online has shrunk due to the ease of mob action, the continual erosion of digital personal privacies, and the poor or completely absent controls the largest stewards of online communication give us to manage our online selves. It really feels like we’re hurtling towards a terrible conclusion there, where people stop talking altogether, about anything, because it’s too risky. The fact I and many others have something like this to say at all is probably proof it’s already gone too far and will end up that way.

The Internet now sucks as a result, at least for me. As someone who literally grew up on it, I feel incredibly lucky that I got to do that when I did where no footprint remains, and very sad that the same privacy I enjoyed online isn’t easily afforded to people today.